Witness leads investigators to 1999 murder victim

Monday morning, several Pinellas investigators poked shovels into the brown earth of mosquito-infested woods on the Suwannee River.

They soon found what they were looking for: a green, plastic tub that held a decomposing body in a nightgown.

The discovery ended one of Pinellas County's most infamous unsolved mysteries.

Authorities on Tuesday used dental records to identify the body as Belleair real estate agent Rosemary Christensen, who vanished in August 1999, a week before her 44th birthday.

Pinellas sheriff's officials on Wednesday got a warrant for the arrest of Christensen's husband, Robert Glenn Temple, 58, on a first-degree murder charge.

For years, detectives suspected Temple killed Christensen, but lacked the evidence to arrest him. Temple left the state with a 22-year-old girlfriend soon after his wife vanished and never called detectives for updates.

He was in a California jail Wednesday, facing extradition to Pinellas.

Christensen's friends and relatives were relieved.

"We are happy that the case is finally coming to a close and that Rosemary has been found," her son Radinck van Vollenhoven, who lives in Holland, wrote in an e-mail to the St. Petersburg Times. "We can now move on with our lives and get closure in this matter."

The break in the case came from the girlfriend, Lesley Stewart, now 31, who contacted authorities last week and said Temple threatened to kill her and her daughter. Stewart said she was involved in the coverup but not the murder.

Stewart on Monday led detectives to her father's property in rural Gilchrist County, about 150 miles north of St. Petersburg.

Two miles into the woods, detectives fanned out with metal probes. They dug less than 2 feet before finding a green, plastic container sealed in duct tape and buried upside down. Christensen's body was inside in a fetal position.

Stewart told detectives she had a sexual relationship with Temple in 1999. He called her to his condo one night in late August, then directed her to look in the bedroom, where she saw Christensen's body.

Stewart said Temple told her that Christensen accidentally fell on a knife during a fight.

Investigators don't believe it — largely because of the steps Temple took to cover up the death.

The morning after his wife disappeared, Temple spent $73.51 at a Largo Wal-Mart on cleaning products, painting supplies and other items that could be used to remove evidence. Detectives said he also picked up the tub at Wal-Mart.

In the couple's condo, investigators found bedroom carpet thrown away; a wall in the same bedroom recently painted; a paint brush in the sink; and blood on an incense box.

Temple told reporters then that he understood why detectives considered him a suspect. But he said he painted and pulled out the carpet before his wife disappeared and that any blood in the apartment could have been spilled when Christensen skinned her knee.

Temple told detectives he suspected Christensen left him for another man.

Temple told reporters he and Christensen, who is from Australia, were swingers and he feared she was "mixed up with people who might have gone too far."

Christensen's friends and relatives, including two sons from a previous marriage, disputed those claims.

Temple's past includes charges of domestic violence, including one in 1997 in which Christensen was a victim. Though she suffered a swollen eye and cuts to her face that needed stitches, she declined to assist in the prosecution, and Temple was only fined.

They married three weeks later.

Two decades earlier, Temple was charged in California with involuntary manslaughter in the death of a companion's 18-month-old boy. He said he served about five years in prison.

Soon after Christensen vanished, Temple retained lawyer Denis de Vlaming, while Stewart hired lawyer Jay Hebert.

Hebert said Wednesday that Stewart admitted to him in 1999 that she helped Temple hide the body. Hebert encouraged her to step forward, but she refused.

Because of attorney-client privilege, Hebert could not tell law enforcement. He said he thought about the case often and is glad Stewart came clean.

"In my experience practicing criminal law for almost 20 years, this is probably the most difficult case I've had to wrestle with," Hebert said.

Soon after Christensen disappeared, Temple and Stewart left the state. They moved around the country in a trailer pulled by a pickup, stopping in Illinois, Arizona and California.

Stewart said Temple constantly threatened her. He claimed to have powerful connections and said he could easily have her killed — even if he were in jail. He forced her to change her identity a few times, Hebert said.

Investigators said he was collecting disability payments and Stewart worked intermittently. The couple had an autistic child about three years ago. They were living in a travel trailer park recently in Redding, Calif.

Stewart recently decided to go to a family reunion near Seattle and, for the first time in nine years, was poised to be out of Temple's sight for more than a day, Hebert said.

Before she left, Temple threatened her with a knife and told her not to talk with anyone about Christensen, Hebert said. He was particularly worried because it was around the ninth anniversary of her death. Authorities said he told Stewart that if she didn't return on time, he would kill himself and their daughter.

Once in Washington, Stewart called Hebert in tears. She said she wanted to come forward.

Hebert called Bruce Bartlett, the chief assistant in State Attorney Bernie McCabe's office.

They worked out a gentleman's agreement in which Stewart would not be prosecuted if she provided truthful testimony against Temple; if she led investigators to the body; and if no evidence ever surfaced linking her to the actual murder.

Stewart flew to Tampa, gave a statement and took detectives to Christensen's body.

"Had she not come forward, we definitely wouldn't be where we are right now," Bartlett said.

Authorities in Redding arrested Temple for threatening Stewart with a knife. He was held in jail on $500,000 bail before he was charged with murder Wednesday afternoon.

Stewart has since returned to California and is in a shelter for battered women, said Hebert, who hopes to help her and her daughter return to Florida soon.

"It's a bittersweet scenario," said Jeff Beggins, Christensen's employer when she vanished. "It's excellent that justice finally got served but it's a sad state of affairs surrounding it."

Witness leads investigators to 1999 murder victim 09/10/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 17, 2008 9:12am]

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